Online teaching: Social presence and communicating with students

Moving to online brings with it benefits. For some, being able to study at a distance and complete tasks at a time that is more convenient or at a different pace is a welcome change. For those less accustomed to teaching or learning on their own and in the ‘virtual realm’, however, it can initially be distressing and/or difficult to get established. For many staff and students, working online was not their chosen mode of delivery or study and the requirement to move online has been in haste.

Learning how to manage a sense of isolation and communicate effectively in online contexts are elements of this new learning and teaching environment that may need additional support.

Establishing a social presence to combat isolation
Student engagement is important in face-to-face teaching and learning contexts. It is much more important in online contexts and essential where students are not accustomed to learning online. Student engagement improves students’ learning outcomes but also helps combat their sense of isolation. To engage students, you, as teacher, need to establish a social presence and ensure you communicate effectively and efficiently. Also remember, what happens online stays online, unlike an error or misstep in face-to-face situations. However, if you are communicating asynchronously you can reflect before you respond. Always ensure all communications are explicit, encouraging and supportive.

For staff, creating a social presence and being active online are essential. Consider it this way: not being present or active online is the equivalent of not turning up to a lecture or tutorial. Recording lectures and posting them onto FLO is not enough. Just as you need to be available to students and guide and support their learning when teaching in face-to-face contexts, you need to be available online and you need to ensure your presence is visible. There are numerous activities you can undertake to create a social presence.

Include a short welcome video on your FLO site which introduces students to the Topic. The video could include:

  • outlining the aims and learning outcomes, assessments and due dates
  • explaining your expectations of the students and what they can expect of you (ensure these are also provided to the students in writing)
  • something about yourself, your approach to teaching the Topic, why you enjoy teaching it
  • outlining the Topic’s importance or value (why students need to do it).

Where possible, use Collaborate as a virtual classroom replacing face-face tutorials with ones mediated through this software. Again, be explicit about what you expect from students and what they can expect from you.

Set up a forum or blog, making it a welcoming space while providing clear instructions about how you want students to use it (e.g. you might ask that in the first instance students introduce themselves and include a small amount of information, such as what they hope to learn in this topic; what other topics they are studying or the degree they are in). Facilitate the blog or forum, and let students know it is being facilitated. If you use both tools you could set them up for different purposes, using the forum as a space for more social types of interaction and questions about the topic while the blog provides a space where the more focussed learning occurs.

Either way, encourage students to respond to each other across the posts, but let them know you will be there in case someone provides incorrect advice or answers. As the topic progresses ensure discussions focus on learning outcomes (clearly indicating the way students’ posts relate to them).

Good practice is for you to model what you require of students, so in your first entry you could:

  • introduce yourself and let students know what other topics you teach and what drew you to teaching in that area
  • include a photo of yourself so students know what you look like (rather than a graphic or avatar) and ask students to do the same
  • disclosing personal information can also humanise the spaces and help people feel less isolated (e.g. information about a hobby, pets or children)
  • ask all staff involved in delivering the topic to do the same, so students know the teaching team and they are aware that other academic staff may respond to their posts.

You do not need to be online 24/7, although checking forums, blogs, emails and other forms of asynchronous communication once a day or at least every second day and providing short responses and feedback wherever possible can be very helpful. Comments do not need to be long, e.g. “yes, good use of Smith’s ideas” or “I recommend taking a look at …, as you have not quite captured X”. Where a post or email requires a longer, more detailed and considered response let the student(s) know you will look into it and give them an approximation of when you will respond with more details. Where possible share the load with others teaching the topic.

If one or two students don’t participate consider emailing them separately to find out why they are not engaging and if they are OK. Part of your expectation setting could involve letting students know you intend following up with any who do not engage.

Further details about how to create a social presence can be found in the Teaching online guidebook.


Stone, C., & Springer, M. (2019). Interactivity, connectedness and ‘teacher-presence’: Engaging and retaining students online. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 59(2), 146-169.

On-line is on the line. Kevin Bell explains the challenges

Thinking about the students: Three essentials in the move on-line

Written by Dr Ann Luzeckyj
Senior Academic Developer – CILT

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